WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR OUR FASCINATION WITH THE LANGUAGE OF APES?
University of New Hampshire[*]*
For certain of the ancients, being human was a mixed blessing.
Do you not see these beasts and birds? How much more free from trouble they live than men, and how much more happily too; and how much healthier and stronger they are, and how each of them lives as long as is possible for it. Yet they have neither hands nor human intelligence; but they enjoy one supreme good which over balances all their disadvantages: they possess no property.
The ancients also sought to understand the organization and order of nature
through comparative study. Socrates, for example, argued that:
Corporally man is unique in possessing erect posture, hands, speech, sexual appetite unbroken to old age; he is physically unique in his knowledge of the gods, ability to anticipate and therefore provide against hunger and thirst, cold and heat, and in his ability to learn.
Aristotle in De Anima sharply divides nature into vegetable, animal, and human life; yet elsewhere he provides a series of anecdotes on animal abilities illustrating their intelligence and suggests that perhaps animals have the rational powers of humans as a potential and compares them to young children who presumably differ little from the beasts. Plutarch, summarizing much of the evidence collected from Aristotle and Pliny, argued that man in fact has learned much from the animals and that the intelligence of the beast is on average no less than that of man:
For I do not believe there is such difference between beast and man in reason and understanding and memory as between man and man.
Today we find these ancient issues still with us, transmitted across two millenia of Western culture. The comparisons between animal and human abilities, as well as questions about the order of nature, have evolved into important scientific questions about biology, ethology, psychology, linguistics, and anthropology. The moral and ethical issues are currently embedded in controversies about humane treatment of research animals, legal rights of nonhumans, conservation and management of endangered species, as well as the broad ethical and ecological considerations about the proper place of homo sapiens in today's complex and changing environment.
Increasingly one finds references to animal language research in connection with discussions of these ethical and scientific topics. This is not surprising, of course, for human language has generally been taken as the one fundamental distinction between man and beast throughout history. Mortimer Adler argues, writing in reference to research on dolphin communication shortly before publication of any of the work with apes, that:
...with the exception of relatively small numbers of scientists and philosophers, the members of the human race have always interpreted and still do interpret the observation that they alone of all animals have the power of speech as signifying not only a psychological difference in kind between themselves and the brutes, but also the psychological superiority of their own kind. Combining this fact with the policy that men have pusued in their treatment of animals, we can discern the normative principle underlying the action. It is that an inferior kind ought to be ordered to a superior kind as a means to an end; in which case there is nothing wrong about killing animals for the good of mankind. The same rule applies to other uses of animals as instruments of human welfare. (1966, Op. 266).
Thus, Adler is concerned that reducing the perceived differences between humans and animals will further undermine the already shaky ethical restraints against inhumane treatment of humans.
Lest anyone think that Adler's speculations are total fantasy, it is worth pointing out that the last sentence cited in Adler's passage above does not only echo Plutarch but also the 1933 Nuremburg Laws:
there is a greater difference between the lowest forms still called human and our superiour races than between the lowest man and monkeys of the highest order. (cited in Adler, 1966, p. 264).
In contrast to Adler, however, most contemporary writers see only positive moral consequences for animal language research. One recent article in the New York Times Magazine, for example, attributes recent attitude changes against the use of animals in experiments in part to the advent of symbol using apes:
One reason scientists are no longer so indifferent to the suffering they inflict on animals is the discoveries that science itself has made. We now know that many animals feel, think, reason, communicate, have sophisticated social systems and even on occasion, behave altruistically toward each other. Communication by sign language with higher primates, demonstrations of the intelligence of dolphins and whales, observations of the complex societies of wolves and other animals, and many other institutions have narrowed the gap between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom, making it more difficult to rationalize inhumane experiments. (Curtis, 1978, p. 20).
Yet, another writer, Eugene Linden (1975) in his Apes, Men, and Language attributes ecological significance of cosmic proportions to the achievements of Washoe and the other apes. Linden contends that the development of Western philosophy and theology fostered an artificial dichotomy between man and nature that gave man both the ability and moral justification to manipulate nature as he could. In a bold hypothesis Linden proposes that our Western conception of "autonomous man," separate from animals, resulted from the lack of our large primate relatives in the regions of Mesopotamia and Europe, as well as a widespread belief in the absence of language in other animals:
When Western man discovered his ape relatives, he had to account for them....the thrust of our involvement with the apes has been to attempt to use them to verify ancient Western Distinctions between human and animal -- such as the Platonic distinction between rational soul and animal soul. To this end, a major investigative effort in the behavioral sciences has been to find some critical faculty present to man that the apes lacked...The traditional distinction between language and animal communication has admirably supported the Platonic distinction between rational soul and animal soul, which in turn, preserved the integrity of a mythology created by people who did not know about apes. (pp. 192-193).
Linden thus sees Washoe and her colleagues as undermining the last supports--already damaged severely by Darwin--for the dichotomy between man and nature expressed in Platonic philosophy, strengthened by Cartesian rationalism, and variously maintained to the present day:
Washoe's shadow threatens the very center of the paradigm (of autonomous man) that originally gave birth to science. (p. 213).
It is unclear to me how much of this Linden expects anyone to take seriously. Would Western culture really be different if Socrates had encountered a chimpanzee performing in the Athenian marketplace? Moreover even a cursory inspection of the vast Western literature on the relative virtues and abilities of man and beast--whether ancient, Renaissance, or modern--suggests, for the most part, a decided belief in similarity and continuity rather than dichotomy between man and beast. It is certainly true however, that Descartes, as we shall see, did argue for a sharp dichotomy between man and beast and that language was the most important factor in his argument. It is also true, though, that Descartes arguments on this matter were accepted as they stood by virtually no one. Indeed Descartes as much as anyone was responsible for the skeptical empiricism that ultimately led to the doctrines of evolution and behaviorism that Linden so much admires for their "demythified" analysis of the order of nature.
It will prove both interesting and useful to briefly look back into the seventeenth century to see exactly what Rene Descartes (1596-1650) had to say on the subject. That was a period when the adequacy of the classical and clerical authorities on man's place in nature was increasingly doubted and the ancient questions about reason and language in animals began to take on scientific, as well as ethical and theological significance.
Descartes on the significance of language. In his Meditations published around 1637, Descartes set forth his now well-known views on the importance of language, more than anything else, distinguishes homo sapiens from the beasts:
For it is a very remarkable thing that there are no men, not even the insane, so dull and stupid that they cannot put words together in a manner to convey their thoughts. On the contrary, there is no other animal however perfect and fortunately situated it may be, that can do the same. And this is not because they lack the organs, for we see that magpies and parrots can pronounce words as well as we can, and nevertheless cannot speak as we do, that is, in showing that they think what they are saying. On the other hand, even those men born deaf and dumb, lacking the organs which others make use of in speaking, and at least as badly off as the animals in this respect, usually invent for themselves some signs by which they make themselves understood. And this proves not merely animals have less reason than men but that they have none at all, for we see that very little is needed to talk (Descartes, 1637/1960, p. 42).
Within this remarkable passage, which Descartes reiterated with little change throughout his life, one finds Descartes expressing belief in three propositions that remain as important and controversial today as they were in the seventeenth century. First, as Linden mentioned, "Descartes used the absence of anything like human language in animals to support a sharp differentiation between man and beast. Descartes argued that animals were merely automata without reason while humans in contrast possessed a non-corporeal faculty of reason--an immortal soul--in addition to a machine-like body.
Secondly, he suggests that the speech organs themselves do not differentiate humans and animals sufficiently to explain the lack of speech in animals. Finally Descartes suggests that language is merely the reflection of reason itself, nothing more.
We shall have occasion to evaluate these Cartesian beliefs about language later (Chapter 4) in light of current theories of human language and the achievements of Washoe et al. For now it suffices only to understand that Linden and others see the symbol using apes as devastating to much of Cartesian philosophy. Roger Fouts, for example, believes that if Descartes had knowledge of Washoe's achievements, the world would have been spared centuries of Cartesian dualism. Similarly, a writer in the New York Times Magazine (H. Hayes, 1977) suggests that the ape language studies conducted in the last ten years have done more to counteract the Cartesian dichotomy between man and beast than any research since 1637. Others such as the reknown biologist Griffin (1976) and the anthropologist Sarles ( ) less dramatically forsee the symbol using apes as at least weakening the Cartesian dichotomy between humans and animals, Griffin, for example...... Stephen Jay Gould (1975), an outspoken paleontologist, sees the symbol using apes along with recent advances in genetic research (e.g., King and Wilson, 1975) as strong evidence that humans and chimpanzees are much more closely related than even the most ardent Darwinian ever believed:
Chimps and gorillas have long been the battleground of our search for uniqueness; for if we could establish an unambiguous distinction--of kind rather than of degree--between ourselves and our closest relatives, we might gain the justification long sought for our cosmic arrogance. The battle shifted long ago from a simple debate about evolution: educated people now accept the evolutionary continuity between man and ape. But we are so tied to our philosophical and religious heritage that we still seek a criterion for strict division between our abilities and those of chimpanzees.. Many criteria have been tried, and one by one they have failed. The only honest alternative is to admit the strict continuity in kind between ourselves and chimpanzees. And what do we lose thereby? Only an antiquated concept of soul to gain a more humble, even exalting vision of our oneness with nature.....
(Gould, 1975, p. 24)
While we cannot get Descartes' own reflections on these recent developments, we can see how he responded to a variety of criticisms from his own contemporaries. As I indicated earlier, Cartesians were no strangers to controversy over the beast-machine doctrine. Very few of those contemporaries ever fully accepted the notion that humans and animals differed to such an extent.
The Cartesian critics. Already we have seen that ancient Greek and Roman writers, so important to scholastic thinking, were as likely to argue for the superiority of animals to humans as not (cf. Lovejoy, ).
Aristotle clearly hedged on the human-animal dichotomy while even Plato--one of Linden's intellectual villians--allowed that animals had souls albeit of a lesser quality than the rational human soul. Thomas Acquinas, who anticipated Descartes mechanism in the 13th Century by likening the functioning of animals to the working of a clock, also attributed somewhat of a Platonic "sensitive soul" to animals. Michael de Montaigne, an important 16th century French essayist and skeptic, popularized many of the ancient beliefs about animals in his well-known "Apology for Raymond Sebond (1590/1958)".
In that famous essay Montaigne extolled the virtues and abilities of animals in aid of criticizing human vanity and the accelerating advocacy of reason over faith. Some sense of the essay which enumerated many animal anecdotes, is reflected in the following excerpts:
Presumption is our natural and original malady...he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine characteristics, picks himself out and separates himself from the horde of other creatures, carves out their shares to his fellows and companions the animals, and distributes among them such portions of faculties, and powers as he sees fit. How does he know, by the force of his intelligence, the secret stirrings of animals? By what comparison between them and us does he infer the stupidity that he attributes to them?....This defect that hinders communication between them and us, why is it not just as much ours as theirs?...We must notice the parity there is between us. We have some mediocre understanding of their meanings; so do they of ours, in about the same degree...Even in the beasts that have no voice, from the mutual services we see between them we easily infer some other means of communication...why not; just as well as our mutes dispute, argue, and tell stories by signs?....I have said all this to maintain this resemblance that exists to human things, and to bring us back and join us to the majority. We are neither above nor below the rest: all that is under heaven....incurs the same law and the same fortune...There is some difference, there are orders and degrees; but it is under the aspect of one and the same nature...And if it is true that he alone of all the animals has this freedom of imagination and this unruliness in thought that represents to him what is, what is not, what he wants, the false and the true, it is an advantage that is sold him very dear, and in which he has little cause to glory, for from it springs the principal source of the ills that oppress him...(1590/1958, pp. 330-336).
Montaigne's essay may be seen as a pivotal point for both ancient and modern concerns about the language and abilities of animals relative to humans. Parts of the essay reflect not only the classical writing on this subject--not unexpected given Montaigne's admiraiton for Plutarch--but there are remarkable parallels to the modern writing of Linden, Gould, and the others so enthralled with the significance of the current ape language research. Since it is apparent that Descartes own thoughts about animal reason and language were shaped to a considerable extent by his reaction to the views of Montaigne and his contemporaries, we might be careful about overestimating the hypothetical impact significance of Washoe and Sarah upon the thinking of Descartes. Perhaps nowhere does Descartes state his views about Montaigne more clearly than in his 1646 letter to the Marquess of Newcastle:
I cannot share the opinion of Montaigne and others who attribute understanding or thought to animals. I am not worried that people say that men have an absolute empire over all the other animals; because I agree that some of them are stronger than us, and believe that there may also be some who have an instinctive cunning capable of deceiving the shrewdest human beings. But I observe that they only imitate or surpass us in those of our actions which are not guided by our thoughts. It often happens that we walk or eat without thinking at all about what we are doing; and similarly, without using our reason, we reject things which are harmful for us, and parry the blows aimed at us. Indeed, even if we expressly willed not to put our hands in front of our head when we fall, we could not prevent ourselves. I think also that if we had no thought we would eat, as the animals do, without having to learn to; and it is said that those who walk in their sleep sometimes swim across streams in which they would drown if they were awake. As for the movements of our passions, even though in us they are accompanied with thought because we have the faculty of thinking, it is none the less very clear that they do not depend on thought, because they often occur in spite of us. Consequently they can also occur in animals, even more violently than they do in human beings, without our being able to conclude from that that they have thoughts.
In fact, none of our external actions can show anyone who examines them that our body is not just a self-moving machine but contains a soul with thoughts, with the exception of words, or other signs that are relevant to particular topics without expressing any passion. I say words or other signs, because deaf-mutes use signs as we use spoken words; and I say that these signs must be relevant, to exclude the speech of parrots, without excluding the speech of madmen, which is relevant to particular topics even though it does not follow reason. I add also that these words or signs must not express any passion, to rule out not only cries of joy or sadness and the like, but also whatever can be taught by training to animals. If you teach a magpie to say good-day to its mistress, when it sees her approach, this can only be by making the utterance of this word the expression of one of its passions. For instance it will be an expression of the hope of eating, if it has always been given a tidbit when it says it. Similarly, all the things which dogs, horses, and monkeys are taught to perform are only expressions of their fear, their hope, or their joy; and consequently they can be performed without any thought. Now it seems to me very striking that the use of words, so defined, is something peculiar to human beings. Montaigne and Charron may have said that there is more difference between one human being and another than between a human being and an animal; but there has never been known an animal so perfect as to use a sign to make other animals understand something which expressed no passion; and there is no human being so imperfect as not to do so, since even deaf-mutes invent special signs to express their thoughts. This seems to me a very strong argument to prove that the reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. It cannot be said that they speak to each other and that we cannot understand them; because since dogs and some other animals express their passions to us, they would express their thoughts also if they had any.
I know that animals do many things better than we do, but this does not surprise me. It can even be used to prove they act naturally and mechanically, like a clock which tells the time better than our judgement does. Doubtless when the swallows come in spring, they operate like clocks. The actions of honeybees are of the same nature, and the discipline of cranes in flight, and of apes in fighting, if it is true that they keep discipline. Their instinct to bury their dead is no stranger than that of dogs and cats who scratch the earth for the purpose of burying their excrement; they hardly ever actually bury it, which shows that they act only by instinct and without thinking. The most that one can say is that though the animals do not perform any action which shows us that they think, still, since the organs of their body are not very different from ours, it may be conjectured that there is attached to those organs some thoughts such as we experience in ourselves, but of a very much less perfect kind. To which I have nothing to reply except that if they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us. This is unlikely, because there is no reason to believe it of some animals without believing it of all, and many of them such as oysters and sponges are too imperfect for this to be credible. But I am afraid of boring you with this discussion, and my only desire is to show you that I am, etc.
(end of Newcastle letter)
This important letter explicitly indicates Descartes' disagreements with Montaigne and also suggests how Descartes might respond to our contemporary research with Washoe, Sarah, and the other apes. One should remember however, that the larger apes were as yet unknown to Europeans in the 17th century; Tyson's Anatomy was not published until 1699. I will return to this matter below.
Descartes continued to defend the essentials of his belief that animals were automata, evidenced by their lack of language, throughout his life. It is hardly necessary to say that his views were vigorously debated across a broad spectrum of opposition. These anti-Cartesians were unified only in their denial of the beast-machine doctrine (Rosenfeld, 1940/1968) that animals -- in contrast to humans -- were automata. Some simply defended the traditional religious and philosophical doctrines that animals indeed had souls, albeit of various qualities and degrees. Others, equally anti-Cartesian, raised increasingly important empirical arguments that animals were only qualitatively different than humans. Strains of this incipient empiricism of course were already present in the pre-Cartesian thought of Gilles, Charron, and Montaigne (cf. Footnote 9). Pierre Gassend (1592-1655) a noted contemporary critic of Descartes argued that man was an animal and differed only in degree of intelligence. Furthermore, Gassendi proposed, amongst some confusing and contradictory theses, a physiological interpretation of the animal soul with the implication that human superiority is a function of superior corporeal organization. A human speech is just proportionally better developed than a dog's barking. (Rosenfeld, p. 114, 193; Brett, 1908).  Gassendi's philosophy in some respects is suggestive of a sensationalist, empiricist animal psychology still with us today in the behaviorism underlying the research with Washoe and Sarah.
Undoubtedly the most interesting and important opposition to Descartes' beast-machine doctrine came from Julian Offray La Mettrie (1709-1751). La Mettrie was a physician who achieved a good measure of notoriety during the 18th century for his anti-establishment notions, including such surprisingly contemporary notions as the importance of sexual fulfillment and self-actualization to human welfare. La Mettrie may be best known, however, for his doctrine that humans, like Descartes' beasts, are machines. His L'Homme Machine (1742/1912) ("Man a Machine") foreshadowed much of the twentieth century psychology about the language of apes. La Mettrie argued that Descartes was correct in his analysis of beasts as machines but did not go far enough in extending the analysis to humans as well. To do this, Descartes' arguments about the uniqueness of human language. First, La Mettrie argued that language was not at all the unique feature of human behavior that Descartes claimed it was. He observed--like Montaigne--that humans and other animals have at least emotional language in common: all of the expressions of pain, sadness, aversion, fear, audacity, submission, anger, pleasure, joy, tenderness and so on. Next he suggested that whatever linguisitic deficits animals suffered might be just a matter of their impoverished environment, their lack of proper training or both:
Could not the device which opens the Eustachian canal of the deaf, open that of the apes? Might not a happy desire to imitate the master's pronunciation liberate the organs of speech in animals that imitate so many other signs with such skill and intelligence? Not only do I defy anyone to prove my view impossible and absurd; but such is the likeness of the structure and function of the ape to ours that I have little doubt that if this animal were properly trained he might at least be taught to pronounce, and consequently to know a language. Then he would no longer be a wild man, but he would be a perfect man, a little gentleman, with as much matter or muscle as we have, for thinking and profiting by his education. (
La Mettrie thus anticipated much of the speculation about ape language we have reviewed in the first chapter with his stress on continuity across physically similar species and his experiential explanation of the ape's inability to talk. Of course we now know from the research of the Kellogg's and others that the apes ability to acquire articulate language by any means--imitation, shaping, or guidance--is extremely limited (cf. Chapter 1 ). La Mettrie, however, had little reason to suppose apes were physically unable to speak; Descartes had already claimed that animals did not lack the organs necessary for speech. La Mettrie was also familiar with monkey anatomy as well as Tyson's Anatomy published in 1699 (cf. Vartanian, 1960). Tyson's own conclusions on this matter are interesting and reflect much of the spirit of the intervening century between Descartes and La Mettrie:
As to the Larynx in our Pygmie...there is nothing that I can further add, but only say, that I found the whole structure of this Part exactly as 'tis in Man....And if there was any farther advantage for the forming of Speech, I can't but think our Pygmie had it. But upon the best inquiry, I was never informed, that it attempted anything that way. (p. 51, 1699/1966).
Tyson repeatedly supports conclusions of French physiologists based upon their analyses of monkey anatomy (footnote 7), about the similarity between humans and other primates including his "Pygmie.":
Since therefore in all respects the Brain of our Pygmie does so exactly resemble a Man's. I might here make the same Reflection the Parisians did upon the Organs of Speech, That there is no reason to think, that Agents do perform such and such Actions, because they are found with Organs proper thereunto: for then our Pygmie might be really a Man. The Organs in Animal Bodies are only a regular Compages of Pipes and Vessels, for the Fluids to pass through, and are passive. What actuates them, are the Humours and Fluids: and Animal LIfe consists in their due and regular motion in this organical Body. But those Nobler Faculties in the Mind of Man, must certainly have a higher Principle; and Matter organized could never produce them; for why else, where the Organ is the fame, should not the Actions be the fame too? and it all depended on the Organ, not only our Pygmie, but other Brutes likewise, would be too near akin to us. This Difference I cannot but remark, that the Ancients were fond of making Brutes to be Men: on the contrary now, most unphilosophically, the Humour is, to make Men but meer Brutes and matter. Whereas in truth Man is part a Brute, part an Angel; and is that Link in the Creation, the joyns them both together.
Tyson's remarks are quite Cartesian; animals operate mechanically while the human mind operates on quite another principle: "for why else where the organ is the same should not the actions be the same too?" La Mettrie, we see, offers a non-Cartesian answer to this question; different organisms with quite similar physiological structure may come to behave quite differently because of different experiences.
In L'Homme Machine La Mettrie articulated a pragmatic materialism already tacitly in practice by some physicians and scientists of the 18th century, inspired as was La Mettrie by Descartes in the previous century. La Mettrie replaced the Cartesian non-material soul with organic brain processes underlying human creative intelligence and language. Language played a special role for La Mettrie as the instrument through which human sensation and instinct--shared with other animals to varying degrees--became transformed into distinctly human intelligence and civilization. Hence, La Mettrie's speculative transmutation of the mute ape into a perfect little gentleman!
Rosenfield (1940/1968), in her important and fascinating From Beast-Machine to Man-Machine summarizes the significance of La Mettrie as follows:
What he was driving at was that man and beast are commensuable parts of the universal chain of being. If one has a soul, so has the other; if one is a machine, so is the other. In line with the whole naturalistic tradition, he aimed to stress the essential community of all forms of life. On the one hand he was pleading the transformist cause in biology; on the other he was striving to make of psychology a physiology rather than a theological study. (p. 192).
Origin and function of language. Few topics attracted more attention during the 18th and 19th centuries than speculation about the origin of human language and its function in human culture. Theories abound, emphasizing language as a social phenomena, a communicative necessity, an elaboration of animal gestural communication, a means of expressing passions and reflecting thought--not to mention the early front runner--a Divine Gift. Unfortunately most of these are still with us; little progress has been made on the origin of language during the past 200 years. These early theories typically contrasted human and animal language and speculated as La Mettrie did, on the reasons for the language gap between ape and man. It comes as no surprise, then, to find renewed interest in language origin theories sparked by Washoe and Sarah (cf. Steklis and Harnad, 1975; )
La Mettrie himself briefly outlined a theory that is quite perceptive. He suggested that while apes and humans are indeed quite similar organic machines, some members of the human species must have a superior organic structure enabling them on their own, without any existing tradition of language, to create it. These humans also must have been endowed with an exceptional empathy to communicate their creation to others, of course who had no language as yet.
Various "invention" theories were discussed throughout Europe during the 18th century. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) saw human language as a social development, stimulated by human feelings and passions more than reason or necessity:
Animals have more than adequate structure for such communication, but none of them has ever made use of it. This seems to me a quite characteristic difference. That those animals which live and work in common, such as beavers, ants, bees, have some natural language for communicating among themselves, I would not question. Still the speech of beavers and ants is apparently by gesture, i.e., it is only visual. If so, such languages are natural, not acquired. The animals that speak them possess them a-borning: they all have them, and they are everywhere the same. They are entirely unchanging and make not the slightest progress, whether for good or ill, and animals do not. That single distinction would seem to be far-reaching. It is said to be explicable by organic differences. Iwould be curious to witness this explanation (From a translation of Rousseau's essay on the Origin of Languages which treats of Melody and Musical Imitation, Moran and Gode, 1966).
Intrinsic to Rousseau and others of the time is a conception of social evolution whereby human nature, unlike that of animals, shows increasing social "progress." The origin of language of course was perhaps the most obvious and important step in man's rise from his natural animal-like state. Inevitably comparisons were drawn between the languageless apes, an occasional report of a feral child without speech, the savages of the New World, and the civilized world of the Europeans who just were beginning to understand the historical interrelationships among their own languages. Much of this was synthesized in the extraordinary multivolumed Of the Origin and Progress of Language written by an eccentric Scottish judge, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799). The orang-outangs that Monboddo saw in London, along with various romantic accounts of their nature, led Monboddo to suppose that orang-outangs were of the same species as humans but were creatures who had not yet progressed enough culturally as to have invented language. What distinguished human nature from that of the brute, for Monboddo, was the capacity for acquiring higher faculties not the actual possession of them. Orang-outangs thus served to exemplify the manner of life for humans in their "natural state" before the invention of language and subsequent civilization. Monboddo not only drew upon the work of Buffon and Linneaus, but upon his own examination of reports of speechless children raised with animals as well as his own research into comparative linguistics. From his investigations, Monboddo believed that language had progressively evolved form the languageless natural state of the orang-outang through the primitive languages of the New World and finally to the highly evolved languages of Europe through their ancestral languages of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.
In contrast to those theories emphasizing the social environment underlying the origin of language, Herder (1744-1778) foreshadowed contemporary biological theories (e.g. Chomsky, 1973; Lenneberg, ) in his essay on the origin of language (1782). There Herder argues strenuously against any divine origin theory as well as against any purely social theory in favor of his belief that reflection and language is "peculiar to man and essential to his species":
There still are in Europe some good-natured primitivisms who say, "Well yes perhaps--if the ape just wanted to speak! --or, if the ape had the occasion! --or if the ape could! --Could! That would be the most fitting, for the preceding two ifs are sufficiently ruled out through the natural history of the animal kingdom, and it is not for the lack of organs, as I have stated, that the "if it could" is stopped in its tracks. The orangutan has a head, outside and inside, like ours; but did it ever speak? Parrots and starlings have learned enough human sounds; but have they ever thought a human word? --But anyway, it is not as yet the external sounds of words that concern us here; we are here concerned with the inner, the necessary genesis of a word as the characteristic mark of a distinct reflection--and when ever has an animal species, in what ever way it may have been, manifested that? Such a thread of thoughts, such a discourse of the soul, no matter what type of utterance it might use, would have to be subject to observation; but who has ever observed it? The fox has acted a thousand times as Aesop had him act, but he has never acted in Aesop's sense, and the first time that he can do that, Master Fox will invent his own language for himself and be able to fabulate about Aesop the way Aesop, as things are, did about him....With our course set for it, we perceive to the right and the left why no animal can invent language, why no God need invent language, and why man, as man, can and must invent language.
[**] Unpublished paper originally written in 1980. References are being prepared.
This passage and others in this chapter
come from Lovejoy's very useful sourcebook on primitive thought. This
particular citation is from the chapter on "The superiority of the animals",
From Love joy (1935, p. 393) where it is attributed to Diogenes.
The recorder of Socrates' thoughts here is Xenophon, cited in Lovejoy (1935, p. 389).
This comes from Plutarch's Gryllus. Gryllus was one of Ulysses' companions who spoke from experience, having been transformed by Circe into a pig. (Lovejoy, 1935, p. 420). Plutarch, in fact, anticipates many contemporary discussions of homo sapiens role in nature.
Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation (1975) covers similar issues and comes to a quite different conclusion, essentially that it is not moral at all to exploit other animal species to the extent we cause those creatures any suffering. In Singer's arguments, however, he wisely focuses upon a capacity for pain rather than that of reason or language as the defining boundary for justice. Still unanswered, I think, is the concern of Adler and others before him like Ritchie (1894):
And if we discriminate between what may be rightly done to the mollusc from what may be rightly done to the mammal, on grounds of different grades of sentience, should we not also -- if sentience be our sole guiding principle -- discriminate between what may be rightly done to lower and higher races among mankind -- the lower and less civilized being undoubted less capable of less feeling?
The entire literature comparing animal and human behavior, whether ancient or modern, is run through with exaggeration, satire, and polemic to such an extent that it is difficult to be sure what anyone really believes. Contemporary discussions about the symbol-using apes are no exception.
The modern study of anatomy and physiology was just starting. Harvey had just discovered some of the principles of circulation and throughout Europe and England dissections were increasingly taking the place of reliance on the traditional accounts of anatomy given in Galen and other ancient writers. Descartes himself probably made some comparative anatomical studies although it is important to remember that detailed comparative descriptions were not published until late in the seventeenth century. Recall that Tyson published his Ourang-outang in 1699 while the French Royal Academy published a collection of comparative studies Memoires For A Natural History of Animals in 1676. Some flavor of the incipient empiricism of the times is reflected in the following introductory passage taken from a 1688 English translation of that volume:
We suppose, that such as are capable of these Reflections, will not have the Malignity to make use of the Authority given to a great number of those, who being incapable thereof, would have us like themselves, retain a blind Veneration for the Works and Sentiments of the Antients; and we do hope, that rational Men will not be so injurious as to render odious the Liberty which we have assumed of saying that our Descriptions are exact, because that we propose nothing but what we have seen; and that we do pretend that they are exacter than those of the Antients: which are made for the most part on the Reports of others: Seeing that we do not impertinently affect to marke the Errors of these great Men, and that we do only advertise the Reader, that our Observations agree not with theirs. For we think not that this comparison of our Diligence with their Remissness, a vain Ostentation and utterly unprofitable; seeing that it may contribute to an instruction more precise, and which better imprints the Idea's of things, when their true Description is distinguished, and marked by the opposition of that which is false......
(reprinted in Montague, 1943, p. 434)
Acquinas apparently understood sensitive soul to imply that animals had a degree of knowledge limited to sensory perceptions and memory.
Montaigne lived at a dramatic time in Western culture. His contemporaries included Francis Bacon, Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo, as well as Luther, Calvin, and other reformists. he was followed shortly by Harvey, Descartes, Locke, Leibnitz, and Newton.
Even before Montaigne, Pierre Gillis argued in his 1533 work on the Life and nature of animals that beasts reason and use language unbeknownst to us, just as we may not understand a foreign language. Gilles is known as one of the earliest zoologists in that he advocated empirical methods in studying animals. It is doubtful however, if he reliably followed his own advice (cf. Boase, 1933/1966). Pierre Charron, one of Montaigne's better known disciples (1541-1603) argued that while there were many similarities and differences between man and the beasts, man is neither entirely above or below them. Charron concluded that animals, whose brains were apparently made of the same stuff as ours, must reason much as we do although perhaps less perfectly. Like Montaigne, Charron argued that reason was not necessarily an advantage. For analyses of Montaigne's influence on Descartes, see Boase, 1935/1970; Curley (1978).
See for example one of his last letters to Henry More.
Descartes did not take Gassendi very seriously. Here is a paragraph from the introduction to Descartes reply to Gassendi's critique:
Although you did not use philosophical arguments to refute my opinions so much as certain oratorical arts to evade them, still I find reason to be pleased in that very fact; for I conjecture from it that it is not easy to put forth arguments against me different from the ones contained in the preceding objections presented by others...I judge from this that you had no other aim than to inform how my arguments might be evaded by men whose intelligence is so steeped in their senses, that they are totally repelled by metaphysical thoughts....I shall answer you here not as a most discerning philosopher, but as one of those men of the flesh. (in Brush, 1972).
For his efforts, LaMettrie was frequently referred to by his contemporaries, as a drunkard, madman, pamphleteer and opportunist. I don't know how much of this is accurate, but some of his ideas are in many respects far ahead of his time (cf. Falves, ). Readers may discern similarities in LaMettrie's thought to contemporary cognitive psychology; particularly Vygotsky (196 ) and other Soviet psychologists notion of language as a "second signal system." Furthermore, his interactionist concept of development is not unlike Piaget's, and his overriding concern for personal creativity and independence form immediate stimulus control of course reminds one of Noam Chomsky (1973).
La Mettrie, and others, believed that Descartes had formulated his dualism largely to avoid religious disputes of the sort that came to Galileo. La Mettrie, for the most part does not seem to think L'Homme Machine anymore than an obvious extension of Descartes' arguments. T.H. Huxley (1898) remarks that Descartes pretends not to apply his views to the human body "throwing a sop to Cereberus unworthily and uselessly because Cereberus was by no means stupid enough to swallow it." (cf. Rather, 197 ; Vartanian, 1960, Caton, 1979), for diverse recent discussions of this point.)
It is easy to oversimplify La Mettrie's complex interactionist view of behavior, more sophisticated than 20th century behaviorist theories. Falvey (1975) summarizes determinants of behavior discussed in L'Homme Machine:
Thus the organic machine (l'organisation), though subject to influence by external and internal causation, has a certain independence manifested in the diversity of reactions to external situations by different organisms. It is for this reason that La Mettrie represents determinism as threefold: from the germ, from the machine-like organism into which it develops, and from the environment. For Descartes, physical determinism was in this respect less complex.....It is also important in evaluating La Mettrie, to remember that he had excellent medical training under Hermann Boerhaave (cf. Rather, 1965) at Leiden, and La Mettrie was undoubtedly further influenced, like most in his century by the dynamic theories of Leibniz and Newton.
Buffon (1707-1788) was an influential French natural historian and popular writer who attributed human language to the extended childhood of man and its consequent development of the family, in which language evolved. Linnaeus (1707-1778) of course was the noted taxonomist who had in 1735 included man in the same order as apes. Monboddo, for all his traditional beliefs, had a remarkably inquiring mind and went out of his way to familiarize himself with firsthand knowledge whenever possible. For example he had personally seen several feral children and sought information whenever possible on such languages as Huron, Algonquin, Carib, Eskimo, Tahitian, and Amazonian, in addition to numerous European languages and Sanskrit. This sets Monboddo apart form the many others of his time like Adam Smith or James Beattie whose speculation on language origins seems purely philosophical. (Cloyd, 1964; 1972).
Herder is known today as a romantic historian, a teacher of Goethe and an immediate predecessor of the 18th century German Naturphilosophie that Gould (1977) characterizes as the scientific incarnation of German romanticism. Herder was quite familiar with Rousseau's essay on the origin of language and wrote the preface to the 1785 German translation of Monboddo's work.